Unconquered, sleevenotes to forthcoming album

When the bonds of tyranny are broken and a young country asserts itself with vigor, this independence is celebrated and cherished. Few would accuse our latter-day Fourth of July revelries as expressing a political slant. And yet we live in a time when patriotism is considered suspect. The seeds of this distrust date back to modernist theorists like Adorno, who viewed nationalism as the root of authoritarianism. But pride in one’s country is in fact morally and politically neutral. If a listener were to profess a love for the dark, deep feeling of Russian music, he would not be endorsing Stalin’s purges, even if someone else could point to the martial culture of Russia and suggest a connection between the aggrandizing sentiment of its music and the extremism of its leaders. Confusion arises when love and pride of one’s country is confused with ethnocentrism—the belief that one’s country is superior. “I love my country” and “My country is the best in the world” are two distinct and different statements.

To write a piece of music inspired by the ideals of the Revolutionary War would be seen as a natural response in the 19th century, but a dubious one in the 21st.  Nevertheless, doing so is hardly a political act. For me, it comes from a love of history and a regard for the aspirational. It is not inherently xenophobic or chauvinistic to feel pride in a country established on principles that value life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—a nation where, if an artist wants to express something, he is not hindered.

Unconquered draws its inspiration from the Battle of Saratoga, which was a decisive turning point in our war of independence when, after General Burgoyne surrendered his British Army, France entered the war, and her support was crucial to our eventual victory. Summon, the first movement, evokes the call to assemble the forces. Dawn suggests not only the dewiness of a new day, but also the surprise of an unexpected attack. Advance calls to mind bravery amid the frenzy and chaos of the battlefield. Finally, Liberty celebrates the triumph of the Continental Army; freedom from British rule; and the burgeoning of a new nation. Neither battlefield nor bloodshed is depicted in this piece: only the expression of moods conjured by these images.

I am grateful to Charles and Candace Wait for making this project possible; to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center for choosing to commemorate their 50th anniversary with a new piece of orchestral music; and to The Philadelphia Orchestra for committing their resources to its performance and recording.

Michael Torke1 Comment